February 06, 2024
Country music icon and Luck E Strike tackle company owner Toby Keith, who rose from working the oil fields of Oklahoma to a Hall-of-Fame music career, has died of stomach cancer at the age of 62. News broke of Keith's death on the singer's website and social-media channels in the overnight hours after his passing on Feb. 5, 2024.
"Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family," the statement read. "He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time."
According to the New York Times, Mr. Keith is survived by his mother Carolyn; his wife of 39 years, Tricia (Lucus) Keith; two daughters, Shelley Covel and Krystal Sandubrae; a son, Stelen; a sister, Tonnie; a brother, Tracy; and four grandchildren. There was no word on funeral arrangements.
Keith was indeed one of the world's foremost musicians over the past three decades with credentials that included being a Hall of Fame song writer, a Hall of Fame singer, and a chart topper who achieved heights rarely seen in the musical industry. Those accolades and many more led Keith being a recipient of the National Medal of Arts award presented by President Donald Trump in 2021.
Deep Love for the Outdoors
It was quite the rise for a cowboy-hat-wearing, guitar-playing honky-tonk crooner who also deeply loved the outdoors. In fact, as we reported last summer at the 2023 ICAST fishing trade show in Orlando, Keith loved fishing so much that he purchased the Luck E Strike tackle company, intending to restore the brand to its previous glory.
“I have a house in Cabo, so that’s my saltwater (place)," Keith said during an interview last summer just moments before he took to the stage for an impromptu performance at the Outdoor Sportsman Group and Outdoor America VIP party at Tin Roof Orlando. "And my buddy owns a boatyard there."
Then he added with a wry grin, “I don’t like to fish, I like to catch. When they’re biting on the saltwater, marlin, tuna, whatever else, I go.”
At property he owned in his native Oklahoma near the site of next month’s 53rd edition of the Bassmaster Classic, Keith also loved the simpler fishing found in the northeastern corner of the Sooner State.
“At home, I have a lakehouse up at Grand Lake, Okla., and I probably go crappie fishing or catfishing every day [when he's there],” said Keith of the 46,500-acre lake that will host its third Classic from March 22-24, 2024.
“I’ve bass-fished for years, too, and I’ve bass-fished with Jimmy Houston for years too. But I don’t go out every day bass fishing, because I like to crappie-fish and catfishing.”
But Keith also noted that he was an enthusiastic bass angler, and when asked whether he would rather record another No. 1 hit song or catch a 10-pound bass, he smiled and didn’t hesitate to answer: "A 10-pound bass,” Keith answered immediately and with some humorous authority. "I ain’t ever caught a 10-pound bass but I’ve got 31 No. 1 songs.”
Inspired During Pheasant Hunt
Keith was also a dedicated hunter. In fact, Should Have Been a Cowboy, Keith's iconic break-out single that jumpstarted his career, was born on a pheasant-hunting trip with buddies to Dodge City, Kansas, the town serving as the backdrop for the television series Gunsmoke, and a TV series that was later referenced in his hit song.
In a story carried by the Los Angeles Daily News in 2018, Keith recalled the writing of that song after one of the hunters in the group, a highway patrolman, had approached a cowgirl in the bar and asked for a dance.
"She guns him down and everyone makes fun of the poor guy and he comes back to the table and a young guy, about half his age, swoops in and takes her to the floor,” Keith said during an interview for the LA news site. “One of them turned and said ‘John, you should’ve been a cowboy.’ I thought, well, I have to write that.”
And he did just that, presumably while he was still wearing his upland hunting clothes and hunter safety orange as he reportedly headed back to his hotel room to write his first hit single and No. 1 song. About 20 minutes later, the song was done, even if the pheasant hunt was not. The hit single was released on Feb. 12, 1993, and Keith’s self-titled debut album that featured that song came out weeks later on April 20, 1993.
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history as Keith rose to stardom that is an All-American success story and then some. So high was Keith’s fame that news of his passing set off a worldwide rush of news and tributes as music royalty, politicians, and regular folks reacted to the loss of the singer who was born in Clinton, Okla. to Carolyn Joan and Hubert K. Covel, Jr. (Keith's full birth name was Toby Keith Covel) on July 8, 1961.
Before his musical career was silenced by his death overnight, Keith had enjoyed success the likes of which the world has rarely seen with 19 studio albums, two Christmas albums, five compilation albums, and worldwide album sales totaling more than 40 million.
Nods to the Red, White & Blue
During that run of platinum album success, Keith had 61 songs chart on the Billboard Hot Country Songs list, including 20 No. 1 hits and 22 other Top 10 hits. Known for songs like How Do You Like Me Now?, As Good as I Once Was, A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action, Wish I Didn't Know Now, I Wanna Talk About Me, Beer for My Horses (a duet with the legendary Willie Nelson), American Soldier and Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue among many others.
As those last two hits suggest, Keith was a patriotic American, performing his No. 1 Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue song—which was written about his father's military service, patriotism and belief in the United States, and a song that was penned during the months following his dad's March 2001 death in a traffic accident and the 9/11 terrorist attacks later that same year. He made frequent oversea visits to support the U.S. armed forces as they served in ongoing military operations in the war against terrorism.
When Keith was young, it was football that captivated his interests for a while, but music eventually took over. After moving to Fort Smith, Ark., while he was in elementary school, Keith's family would relocate to Moore, Okla., where Keith would play defensive end in high school. It was the hometown that would spawn his lifelong love of Oklahoma Sooners football.
But despite those Oklahoma roots, Keith would return to visit his grandmother in Fort Smith during the summer months, a town on the Oklahoma/Arkansas border where his grandmother owned a supper club. And it was there that he would develop an interest in music. Keith received his first guitar at the age of 8. Eventually invited onstage to perform with others, no one could have known where it would all lead one day.
Cowboys Loved Him Back
Eventually lead, that is, since Keith started his working life by heading for the oil fields in the Sooner State. When times grew tough in the oil business, he turned to football again, playing semi-professional football as a defensive end for the Oklahoma City Drillers while continuing his quest for the musical stage with his band, the Easy Money Band.
Keith eventually left Oklahoma for Nashville in the early 1990s, distributing copies of a demo tape of his band’s music in hopes of attracting interest from a record label. There were no takers, however, and it appeared that Keith would fall short of his promise to himself of having a record career.
But then providence intervened when a flight attendant and fan of his honky-tonk music gave of copy of the demo tape to Harold Shedd, a record executive with Mercury Records during a flight that Shedd was traveling on. When the record executive listened, he went to see Keith perform and signed him to a record contract.
Keith's debut single was the iconic Should've Been a Cowboy on the self-titled debut album. Used as the musical backdrop in a tribute video to the Dallas Cowboys' 1992 Super Bowl championship season, the music seemed tailor-made for Hall-of-Fame coach Jimmy Johnson and Hall-of-Fame players like quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmit Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin.
Keith loved the Cowboys and the Cowboys loved Keith, who performed at halftime of the Cowboys' Thanksgiving Day game in 2003.
Early on in his career, Keith began a close friendship with Aikman during the team's dynasty run of three Super Bowl wins in four years. Later on, Keith would support Aikman's Garage Band fundraising effort for United Way and would also inspire his friend and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with the song Don't Let the Old Man In.
That song was another chart-topping success for Keith, who performed it only months ago at the 2023 People's Choice Awards . In that performance last fall, which drew tears from onlookers and now seems like a goodbye from Keith as he appeared thin and gaunt on the stage while battling the ongoing effects of the cancer and treatment, the words weren’t quite as strong as they might have been a decade ago.
But now, they were more meaningful than ever as Keith traveled on a difficult health journey that he never gave into until the very end.
"Don't let the old man in,” Keith crooned as millions watched in person and on TV. “I wanna leave this alone, can't leave it up to him, he's knocking on my door.
“And I knew all of my life, that someday it would end. Get up and go outside, don't let the old man in.”